When my Russian lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, died in police custody in November 2009, I thought that there was a good chance of getting justice for him from the Russian legal system for what I believe to be his murder. Unlike in many other human rights abuse cases, there was a mountain of documentary evidence proving exactly who killed him.
Sergei had given official testimony to Russian investigators prior to his arrest describing how the police were involved in stealing our companies as well as the $230 million in taxes we had paid to the Russian budget. Official police documents show that the same police officers who Sergei testified against arrested him. After his arrest, Sergei wrote 450 complaints during his 358 days in detention detailing exactly how his rights were violated and who did what to him at every different moment of his horrible ordeal. His complaints showed how specific state officials and judges refused his desperate requests for medical care, fabricated evidence to keep him locked up, and moved him through dozens of cells.
As Sergei was being tortured in detention, the Russian officials who approved the largest known tax refund fraud in Russian history, and their families, got inexplicably rich. On Nov. 16, 2009, Sergei went into critical condition from the withholding of medical care. Only then did the authorities move him to a prison hospital, but instead of treating him, they put him in an isolation cell and let eight riot guards with rubber batons beat him for one hour and 18 minutes until he was dead. He was 37 years old. There is nothing debatable in this story. It was laid out in great detail by the Moscow Public Oversight Commission on Dec. 28, 2009, and then subsequently by President Dmitry Medvedev's own Human Rights Council on July 5, 2011.
Unfortunately, contrary to my initial hopes, there has been no justice. Just the opposite. The entire apparatus of the Russian government has circled the wagons to protect every official involved. The Interior Ministry officers who arrested Sergei, denied him medical care, and tortured him to death received state medals and were promoted. The Russian Investigative Committee has exonerated 58 of the 60 officials for whom there is clear evidence of their involvement in the case. (They are only prosecuting the two prison doctors for negligence). The Russian courts have refused dozens of appeals for justice filed by Sergei's family, friends, and activists. Perhaps the most dramatic development is that instead of prosecuting the people who killed Sergei, the police have now launched Russia's first-ever posthumous prosecution against him. Even Joseph Stalin never went that far.
What's more remarkable is that this coverup is not going on in the shadows. Every development in this case is being reported in detail in Russia and abroad. The Levada Center has surveyed Russians and found that 60 percent believe Sergei was deliberately denied medical care. If you search for the name "Magnitsky" on Russia's largest search engine, Yandex, you get 18,990 news articles that have been published in Russia about every minute detail of the case and the coverup since he was killed. The YouTube video series "Russian Untouchables," which shows the illicit wealth of the officials exposed by Sergei, has been watched by millions of Russians.
The facts of this case are so damning that the U.S. Congress, the Canadian Parliament, the European Parliament, and the national parliaments of 10 European countries are taking the unprecedented steps of preparing visa sanctions and asset freezes on the officials who killed Sergei. They are the first sanctions against Russia since the dissolution of the Soviet Union 21 years ago.
With all this going on, it gets harder and harder to understand why the Russian government persists in this coverup. Whose interests are they fighting for? Certainly not the national interest: Government coffers have lost $230 million from this one theft (and certainly a lot more from identical thefts perpetrated by the same officials previously and since). Young people are looking at what happened to Sergei and wanting to leave Russia as a result. Investors are looking at what happened to my lawyer and me and are thinking twice before investing in the country. So why would the government continue to protect his killers and the people who defrauded the state?
Could it be that Medvedev and the soon-to-be reelected Vladimir Putin just don't understand what really happened? That's hard to believe, particularly because Medvedev publicly acknowledged on July 5, 2011, that he thought crimes were indeed committed after he was presented with the findings his own Human Rights Council report. As for Putin, he has been noticeably silent on this case, but it's hard to believe he hasn't read even one of the 18,990 articles that lay out the facts in detail.
Perhaps these two men don't believe the newspapers and genuinely believe the Interior Ministry's version of events, that Sergei was a swindler who died of natural causes. This seems implausible as well. In normal countries, leaders would generally believe their own officials, but Russia is not a normal country and everyone knows to distrust the Interior Ministry. And in this case, there is just so much objective information to disprove the ministry's story. It was widely reported that complaints with evidence gathered by Sergei about the officials involved in the thefts had been filed with all government investigative bodies three weeks before the crimes were committed, which would have stopped the crimes if they had been acted on. It was also reported that the same state officers and criminals who had committed the $230 million theft in 2007 had been involved in identical thefts a year earlier. And it is hard to look at the pictures of Sergei's bruised body and conclude his death was from natural causes.
If Putin and Medvedev don't believe the Interior Ministry, perhaps their inaction is explained by an inability to control the law enforcement agencies. That is how First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov explained the inaction in the Magnitsky case to 100 of the world's most important CEOs at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January. He said: "The law enforcement agencies are a law unto themselves."
This explanation seems entirely ridiculous as well. Russia is a vertical power. Anything that Putin says is immediately acted upon. If there is one country in the world where a phone call from the president or prime minister gets fast results, it is Russia.
As we exhaust the plausible reasons why the government has done nothing, it leads us to one unpleasant conclusion. The president and prime minister are actually involved in this scandalous crime. They may not be direct beneficiaries, but they have tacitly allowed their subordinates to commit these acts with full knowledge and, afterward, provided them with cover and impunity.
Putin and Medvedev may very well be committing similar acts of their own and require the system to function without upset or interruption. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the entire government apparatus in Russia is not there to provide leadership and services for the Russian population. Instead, it functions only for top officials to steal as much money as they can and destroy whoever stands in their way. Putin cannot steal and then disapprove of his ministers stealing. That just wouldn't work.
Perhaps this is an obvious fact that all Russians know, but what has not been obvious until the Magnitsky case is how much damage Putin and Medvedev are willing to inflict upon the Russian people to keep this plundering in place. I don't think there has been a government scandal in Russia in the last 12 years that has outraged and touched every Russian as much as the Magnitsky case. There is no obvious upside for incurring that cost, other than to maintain this system of theft.
As a foreigner looking at March 4's Russian presidential election this Sunday, I completely understand why people are out on the streets. Each day there is a Russian headline about a "Second Magnitsky," another victim of police abuse and of complete lawlessness. Each day someone is arrested or threatened with criminal prosecution for speaking up. Everyone has their own version of the Magnitsky story, and nobody in Russia can want these crimes to continue. The question for everyone is how hard will Putin and Medvedev fight to keep this system in place? If one judges by this case, it's hard to imagine that they won't stop at anything.
Unfortunately, that is a very scary thought for the future of Russia, as long as this regime remains in power.